Apprenticeships – fuelling our region’s future workforce

MattTyrerMatt Tyrer, Project Manager for Work-based Learning at the University of the Highlands and Islands, answers common questions about apprenticeships and explains why they are vital in supporting our region’s economy.

‘Apprenticeships are changing’. This has been the tag line used in recent times by Skills Development Scotland, the national skills body for Scotland, in its marketing efforts to raise awareness that apprenticeships today might be quite different to how we remember them from our own personal and, in some cases, slightly out-dated experiences of education and life at the beginning of the career ladder.

Today, there are funded apprenticeships available across a wide range of subject areas and business sectors, open not only to people just starting out their careers, but also to more experienced staff looking to bolster and formalise the skills and experience they have developed ‘on the job’.

So, is getting more involved in apprenticeships something your organisation should be considering?

Why are apprenticeships important?

Apprenticeship programmes are an important part of the Scottish Government’s Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce agenda, helping to ensure that education and training is industry led and fit for purpose, and providing practical solutions to support employers with their workforce planning and business development needs.

For our region in particular, we are facing a disproportionately higher level of aging population in comparison to the rest of Scotland and we continue to struggle to stem the out-migration of young people and talent from our rural communities, which, when combined, reduces the number of working age people available for employers in our region. At the same time, forecasts are showing that our region’s key sectors and industries are going to require a higher number of new staff than will be available, to fill both growth demands and replace workforce leavers (e.g. through retirement or leaving work to care for the family).

Stewart Sloss Lantra image gamekeepingApprenticeships can support us through this challenge by providing the opportunity for employers to attract new talent to their workforce at a relatively early stage in a person’s life and career, raising awareness of the opportunities available locally, without the need to move away. They also enable people already in work to continue to learn, develop, reskill and upskill around their job and other life commitments, supporting the continued development and retention of region’s workforce.

In a world where the nature of work is changing so rapidly, there is an expectation that the workforce will have to continually adapt and flex as technological advances and job demands change and evolve around us. What is really important about apprenticeships is that they ensure that the education and training people receive is grounded in the reality of working life and the needs of the businesses they will be working for. Furthermore, they support the development of a range of skills, sometimes called core-skills or more recently ’meta-skills’, which can be applied across a range of areas and disciplines. These kinds of transferable skills are becoming even more essential.

What do apprenticeships look like today?

In Scotland today there are three main types of apprenticeship covering sectors and job roles including construction, engineering and energy, food and drink, IT and digital, business and administration, healthcare, tourism and hospitality, land-based and maritime.

The most well established is the Modern Apprenticeship programme, which provides opportunities for people in employment to gain accredited, industry recognised qualifications which recognise skills and experience gained in the workplace. There are over 90 different frameworks available across a range of sectors, subject areas and levels of learning.


In more recent times, the Foundation Apprenticeship has become an established part of the school education. These are work-based qualifications which combine the best of academic study with the practical, work-based application of skills together into one qualification. They are at the same level of learning as the Higher and are offered to school pupils in their senior phase (in S5 and S6), usually delivered by colleges or other training providers outside of the school environment.

With Foundation Apprenticeships, employers can provide structured work placement opportunities linked to the completion of an apprentice’s qualification and get involved in other ways such as setting project-based challenges, taking guest speaker slots and hosting visits. Foundation Apprenticeships are a great way for an employer to get a glimpse of their potential future workforce before they’ve even left school. Employers have already been impressed by the capability of our university partnership’s Foundation Apprentices and, in some cases, have been very quick to offer paid employment opportunities when school studies have finished.

Finally, the third and newest apprenticeship within the Scottish family of apprenticeships is the Graduate Apprenticeship. These are work-based degrees – high level and challenging academic programmes, as any degree is, but blended into the student’s employment situation so that workplace time and activity informs learning and assessment, enabling a full-time degree programme to be completed while in work. With more traditional graduate schemes, employers bring in new graduates then invest time in a programme of induction and further training. With Graduate Apprenticeships, the student is embedded in the workplace from day one and, by the time they graduate, will already have up to four years’ experience with an employer, with their academic learning contextualised to your business and broader industry throughout.

What are the benefits to the employer?

At a time when recruitment and retention of our workforces is becoming increasingly challenging and competitive, apprenticeships provide a great solution. They are funded and deliver comprehensive training which is flexible to your needs, helping you to strengthen and upskill your existing staff and future workforce.

craig_duncan029(1)The training is structured and supported by qualified academic staff and assessors, and you are supported every step of the way by your apprenticeship provider.

It is important to understand that while apprenticeships are a great way to fulfil your recruitment and workforce planning needs, they are not about accessing cheap labour. They can be challenging qualifications which require a high level of capability, commitment and motivation from the apprentices, but also effective mentoring and support from the employer. However, when done right, they provide great benefits, including increased productivity and innovation. They are also a fantastic way to invest in young people and your existing staff, and to support your local community in a way that also meets your business need.

What are the benefits to the apprentice?

Foundation Apprentice Ewan RobertsonStudying an apprenticeship provides the opportunity to ‘earn while you learn’ (with the exception of Foundation Apprenticeships in school, of course) and gain new skills and experience alongside experienced colleagues and experts from your chosen industry or business sector. They are a great first foot in the door to a new business or industry sector, or a way to continue your learning and development while in work.

An apprenticeship provides you with the experience, work and life skills employers are looking for, and sets you up to be a flexible and adaptable team member, ready for today’s fast-paced and changing world of work.

How do apprenticeships work?

For Foundation Apprenticeships, pupils entering the senior phase of school will choose these as part of their options in liaison with their school guidance teachers. They run over one or two years during S5 and S6 and usually include a combination of college-based study and workplace experience, and are studied alongside other school qualifications.

Modern Apprenticeships are employment-based programmes available to anyone aged 16 or over and tend to last between one and four years depending on the specific framework being undertaken. An employer can either identify a suitable member of their existing team or recruit a new apprentice into their workforce.

There are a range of training providers available, who will support the employer to ensure any potential candidate can meet the requirements of the apprenticeship programme before they start.

Teamwork in freight transportation industry with cargo containersThe apprenticeship is a partnership between training provider, employer and apprentice, with everyone having their own responsibilities and contribution to ensure the programme will be a success. However, the training provider will lead both the employer and apprentice through their apprenticeship journey, including using things like inductions, tailored learning plans and regular reviews to help ensure everyone knows what is required and stays on track.

Depending on the apprenticeship, there may be some requirement for the apprentice to attend college or university, particularly in the earlier stages of the programme, however in many cases the apprenticeships are entirely work-based and involve an assessor making regular visits to the workplace to support and assess the apprentice.

Graduate Apprenticeships are similar to Modern Apprenticeship in many respects, except that they are only provided by universities. Due to the high level of academic study required, it is even more essential that the university is involved in the early stages of identifying or recruiting a graduate apprentice, not only to ensure they can manage the programme, but also to identify any previous qualifications or work experience which might enable them to fast-track through the programme.

For example, at the University of the Highlands and Islands we are currently seeking new employer partners for our civil engineering and early learning and childcare programmes, ready for a new programme starting in September.


How can I find out more?

To find out more, visit, the Skills Development Scotland website for apprenticeships, where you can access information about the range of apprenticeship opportunities available across Scotland.

To find out more about the range of apprenticeships across Foundation, Modern and Graduate levels available in your region through the University of the Highlands and Islands, visit or contact your local University of the Highlands and Islands college.

The university’s apprenticeship programmes form part of a portfolio of work-based learning at the university and are managed and supported though the university’s work-based learning hub. For further help or information, please contact the hub at or call 01463 279 436.


Foundation, Modern and Graduate Apprenticeships have been developed by Skills Development Scotland, in partnership with employers, colleges, universities and Sector Skills Councils, with support from the European Social Fund.

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